getting home for the holidays… with the angels among us

Posted on Dec 24, 2010

‘Twas the week before Christmas and all through the skies

Not an airplane was flying…

If you have seen any news at all this month, it will come as no surprise to you that Monday morning, when I got up to go to the airport, there was an email in my inbox informing me that my flight had been cancelled. I have found that breakdowns often disrupt our lives just enough to reveal the angels among us.

Today, after my own horrendous 36-hour trip from France to England, I can’t help thinking of all the others like me, stranded between familiar shores trying to get home for the holidays. This is for you, and for the angels among you.

There I was on Monday. Bags all packed, fridge cleared out, and nowhere to go. There were no flights available to Gatwick Airport until 26 December. I checked the trains, from Nice to London. Nothing available. So from England my husband (Angel #1) helped me create a patchwork itinerary combining train and ferry.

  • Nice to Paris via TGV
  • Paris to Caen via Intercities train
  • Caen to Portsmouth via Brittany Ferries
  • Portsmouth to home via Peugeot 306

I had one hour. I recalled taxi driver Claude, took one of my fastest showers ever, inhaled two scrambled eggs, closed two obese suitcases and headed out the door. With that my Christmas adventure begins.

Gare Nice Ville. The ticket machine won’t read my card. As I wait in line, the track changes from one with no stairs to one with stairs. I stand at the bottom of the stairs, when Angel #2, a handsome young man, grabs my enormous suitcase and runs it up the stairs, “TGV?” as he puts the bag on the train.

I am confused, because it is 10:25 and my ticket says 10:35. The conductor confirms that I am on the wrong train. Next stop… Antibes. I drag my bags off the train and head down the platform in search of information.

Angel #3, an older SNCF employee, must have been standing on that platform for 50 years. His big smile is returned by every employee who passed. I show him my ticket and he directs me to the track for my train and, for Car 6, to wait by the letter S. In a few minutes he finds me there; the train configuration has changed, and he walks me back to the exact spot to find Car 6. This kind of service is extraordinary in France; he is an extraordinary man.

I get on the train, stow my big bag, and find my way to Seat 62. I share this journey with an assortment of travelers, many of whom I suspect are also there because of ruptures to their travel plans. The seats are set up in clusters of four facing seats. Facing me is a young man with dark curly hair, aviator sunglasses and an Apple computer. Across the aisle are two young women on their own. The next two clusters are filled with young men in yamakas, one of whom with bright blue eyes sits with us. For the next six hours, This is my tribe.

Angel #4 is the young Italian architecture student. As we approach Paris, our train is slowed by snow. My train connection is in jeopardy. I ask the two young men if they know Paris… if Gare Paris Lyon is far from Gare Paris St. Lazare. The Apple guy shows me a map on his iPhone and tells me I will need a taxi. His trip from Pisa back to Paris has also been hell. He smiles and lets me in.

Meanwhile, Angel #1 is backing me up at home. Connected via SMS messages on our iPhones, he responds to my need for information. He comes back with a phone number for an English-speaking taxi company, and within 10 minutes I have a taxi. My transfer between stations is a scenic tour of Paris, through Arrondissement 1 and Rivoli, shop windows glistening with tinsel, banks sparkling with icicle lights, squares bustling with traffic. I have spent much of my last 10 years in France, but I have not been in Paris in more than 20. I am filled with wonder.

After thirty minutes in the taxi, I arrive at Gare St. Lazare three minutes past my train’s scheduled departure. Not only does the 17:10 train to Caen not leave on time; it does not leave at all. The station is heaving. With my big bags, I can hardly to move. The next train is at 17:45. I find a spot between two women with Big Bags like mine and watch the board for updates. The 17:45 is delayed… 30 minutes, 40 minutes, 50 minutes, 1 hour 15, 1 hour 30, 2 hours. It is a mob scene d’horreur.

I stand with those ladies (Angel #5, the older and Angel #6, the younger) on that platform without moving for three hours. I am freezing. I need a toilet. I am hungry. We come to trust each other. The older lady asks me to watch her bags while she buys a sandwich. Then she does the same for me. Before they take a different train, four travelers from Caen (Angels 7-10) tell me it will be 20 minutes by taxi to the ferry, but there should be taxis at the station. The older lady then peels off to find warmth, and I continue to wait.

Finally, trains from Caen start coming in. The first actually shows a track, number 25. We, the masses, move as an organism down the darkened platform shoulder to shoulder with rolling bags, backpacks and feet all interlinked. I pass car after car with neither empty seats nor space for Big Bags like mine. Finally I turn through a group of young black men into the door. Angels #12 & 13. As one asks if he can help me, another just lifts Big Bag (“BB”) and put it on the train.

I manage to find a spot in the corridor by a locked door for me and my bags, my little equivalent of a manger. I park myself there and prepare to make the two-hour journey sitting on my suitcase. Then comes the announcement that Caen train #2 is on the next track. I decide to change. Down with the bags again and up the other side. I heave my bag onto the train by lying it down and pushing it across the deck.

As one man stands on the platform watching me struggle, another inside the corridor pulls BB in and hoisted onto the rack. “Merci beaucoup, monsieur,” I say. “It’s very heavy.” His delightful response: “Je suis costeau.” Angel #14 is “fit!”

Escaping at last from Gare Hell, this must be heaven:  a cushy, warm seat, the sandwich I bought three hours earlier, and an effervescent girl bound for Deauville who began her day in Damascus. After 45 minutes, the train finally begins to move. The further out from Paris we go, the thicker the snow blankets on the platforms we pass. There is no way I am going to make the 11:00 PM ferry now. So I send a text to Angel #1. Minutes later… his SMS appears with news of a hotel room, the phone number and instructions for the 8:30 AM ferry.

The train arrives at 11:00 PM as predicted. Thankfully, the platform is covered. No snow. Only more stairs. I start down them in my usual fashion, step by step, bag by bag. I feel a shoulder next to mine as a smiling man (Angel #15.) offers to take BB for me. I follow the crowds to an exit and up the stairs again, where another hand joins mine in the handle, and a young bright-eyed woman (Angel #16) simply says mid-stairs, “Je t’aide.”

Through the terminal, now approaching 11:30 PM, I join more than a dozen people waiting for invisible taxis. Searching faces and mixtures of English and French, we wait together. Among them, Angel #17… Gerald. This large beardless English Santa approaches and asks where we are going. He has missed the ferry too. I offer to call the hotel for him, and he accepts. The younger of two Indian gentlemen at the front of the line asks if I can help them get a taxi; I get them a hotel room instead. When a taxi does arrive, all four of us fold ourselves in, filling the boot with our baggage, sharing the 25-minute ride to the Hotel Mercure, right across the street from the ferry.

That night, in the warmth and solitude of my hotel room after midnight, I crawl between the sheets and curl up like a baby for a few hours, so grateful that I have made it this far.

I am downstairs by 7:30 AM the next day to pay my bill and make my way to the ferry. The clerk tells me the men have already left. I am worried. No chance of a taxi, I set out into the dark morning of Winter’s longest night. I turn off the wooden ramp onto the sidewalk, slick with ice. Two heavy bags on wheels + ice-rink roads + the memory of a broken hip from a fall last year = possible disaster for me.

As I look down the darkened sidewalk that stretches between the terminal and me I cannot believe my watery eyes. In the deep-winter, early-morning darkness a large male figure walks slowly toward me. It is Gerald! He is coming back to help me. I cannot believe his kindness.

Once again, Gerald takes BB. I ask if I can take his arm; and we skate across the street, up a muddy hill, down the grass-lined icewalk, down another frozen hill to the terminal. We join the Indian men in the café and wait to board. Immigration papers handed over, bags x-rayed, we take seats on the shuttle bus. Wearing the turban of a Sikh, the elderly Indian man (the younger one’s father) is very wise: “How powerful is Nature,” he says with a smile. “She can bring everything to a stop. How small we are in the face of it.”

We arrive at the ferry dock, where (Gerald is smiling) two elevators lift us to the main deck, and we are as good as home. Angel #1 has arranged a cabin for me, where Gerald and I store our bags. The rest of the trip is a joy. Excellent food, comfortable seats, warm and dry, and even a little last-minute Christmas shopping. And the gentle company of a big English angel named Gerald.

Though the ferry arrives on time, we cannot disembark. Ferry staff do not tell us why, but lead us down two flights of stairs and out an unfamiliar door to the vehicle deck. Tempers start to flare. We watch as a passenger shuttle creeps backward into the ship hold, all the way back to where we stand. As it turns out, the gangway is too icy to use, so this is their carriage to take us home.

Again I wait in line to go through UK immigration. Gerald has BB, and I have my other bag. I watch the Indian men (who had trouble with French authorities) pass through unhindered. The younger turns and raises his hand to wave goodbye; I lift mine in eager response. We have all been through something together. Gerald and I finally pass through the double doors to the terminal, where Angel #1 waits, holding a huge bouquet of flowers for his prodigal wife.

As we drive Gerald to the train station, Angels 1 & 17 share stories and of boats and boating. We have made a new friend. Life has given us all a gift, wrapped in a package of breakdown and disruption.

To all 17 of the angels I met along the way, thank you very much and Merry Christmas. May all your holiday dreams come true!

To all the rest of you, Bon courage! May you find your gift amidst all that goes wrong this year, and may you see the angels beside you on the way.

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